Source: James Dao, The New York Times Section A, page 10, 10 June 2002.
Unit note: The 187th Infantry is nicknamed the Rakkasans. This is the name the Japanese gave them in World War II (when the unit was part of the 11th Airborne). The word means "falling umbrellas".
The 187th served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf.
Symbol of the Rakkasans.
The soldiers of Company A, Second Battalion, 187th Infantry, Third Brigade, 101st Airborne Division are nearing the end of their tour of duty. The unit has been in Afghanistan for six months, and the war for them is almost over.
Few, if any, want to stay a day longer than necessary. They want to get back home to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to loved ones, cold beer, good food. There is no great love for the unit's encampment, nicknamed Viper City, in Bagram. But it does bothers many of the soldiers that their mission has not been completed.
Osama bin Laden and Mullah Muhammad Omar have not been found. Qaeda and Taliban soldiers roam the wilds of the Pakistan border.
"We came over here to clean up the terrorists, and guys don't want to go home until the job is done," Captain Kevin Butler, A Company commander told the New York Times. "If the plane to take us home was coming at 8 o'clock tonight, my guys would go on one more mission at 7:30."
The Second Battalion of the 187th Infantry began arriving in Afghanistan in January 2002. Their first encampment was a makeshift air base in Kandahar.
The Times reported, "Since then, they have slept in frigid foxholes and washed with baby wipes. They have eaten packaged food and relieved themselves in wooden boxes. They have enduring bitter cold and scorching heat, lived in crowded tents and swallowed too much of the swirling dust that envelopes everything in Afghanistan."
The soldiers know their country is behind them, and they are proud of their work. "I wanted to see if I could do what I was trained to do, even when I was scared," said Staff Sgt. Richard Ballard, 28. "I think we did all right."
Capt. Kevin Butler, the commander of Company A, at Bagram Air Base discussing plans for a trip to Kabul with Maj, John Lockwood, a British liaison officer, left, and Staff Sgt. Richard Ballard, right. (James Dao, The New York Times).
Most of the men in A Company—some just out of training—saw combat for the first time in Afghanistan. The first fighting occurred in March in the Shah-i-Kot Valley. The fight got off to a bad start when seven servicemen were pinned down by Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
A Company boarded a transport helicopter that had just returned to base with a mortally wounded soldier. The men tried to ignore the blood stains on the floor of the helicopter.
On the flight out, First Sgt. James Lemon turned to the private seated next to him and asked if he was afraid. The private said no. "Well, I'm scared," Sergeant Lemon, 38, a 13-year Army veteran, told the private. "I'm afraid because I don't know what's out there."
From the air, Afghanistan's landscape looks a lot like the moon.
The company landed at the north end of the Shah-i-Kot Valley and immediately came under fierce small-arms and mortar fire. Enemy fighters were entrenched on a ridge that became known as the Whale.
Captain Butler called in airstrikes, but the enemy withdrew as the planes approached and then popped back out for a victory dance (waving and jeering at the Americans below).
"I knew then that this was a real army we were fighting," said Sgt. Corey Daniels, 23, the leader of a forward observation team. "I looked at a picture of my wife and daughter and said, 'Please Lord, let me see my family again.'"
As reported previously by the New York Daily News, Capt. Butler and his mortar team worked out a plan, timing mortar fire to hit the Whale 30 to 60 seconds after the next airstrike.
The plan, the Times reported, worked to devastating effect.
That action was the only combat Company A saw in Afghanistan.
Since that time, the unit has served as a quick reaction force, ready to fly within 30 minutes anywhere in Afghanistan. They were only called upon once.
In May, a MH-53 Pave Low combat transport helicopter malfunctioned and crash-landed near the Pakistani border.
For 30 hours, Company A soldiers guarded the chopper while mechanics repaired the damage. The helicopter, the Times reported, "had landed on an exposed sand bar in the middle of a rushing river, and a crowd of curious Afghans, many carrying guns, gathered on the shore to watch. High above, a Predator reconnaissance drone relayed live video of the scene to a command center at Bagram, prompting a Special Operations officer to radio Captain Butler and warn him to move away from the helicopter 'because it was a mortar magnet.' 'I told him, "Thanks, but I've done this before," Captain Butler recalled."
No shots were fired.
The 187th is an elite unit, but an infantry unit all the same—and proud of it. Its soldiers bristle at the notion that the fighting in Afghanistan was mainly carried out by Special Operations commandos.
"People call us grunts, ground pounders and all kinds of other names," said Sergeant Lemon, a former chef who is Company A's steely disciplinarian and voice, of experience (according to the Times). "But when you need somebody on top of a ridge at 12,000 feet, in the desert or in the jungle, when it comes time to carry a 55-pound backpack while crawling on your belly in the mud, they call on the infantryman."